Cosmopolitanism is the belief in universal human rights, regardless of time or place. That each of us is a citizen of the world first, country second. It also denotes a law and morality that transcends all, and must be applied to everyone equally. This equality under the law means that no one has any right to rule over another and each person must be free to control their own life.
At its heart, cosmopolitanism is a rejection of man’s tribal instinct. By expanding the tribe to mankind as a whole, we rise above our natural tendency to prefer our own group over others and instead form a bond with the world as a whole. Implied by this is a universal moral standard, exemplified most completely by the (classical) liberal idea of equal rights. Your right to live your own life unimpeded, provided that you’re not impeding anyone else in their pursuit of the same, is a moral duty to every other person on Earth.
As Mises put it: “for the liberal, the world does not end at the borders of the state. In his eyes, whatever significance national boundaries have is only incidental and subordinate. His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind.”
More than just a recognition of the universal rights of others, cosmopolitanism is also the recognition of the moral duty to protect and defend the rights of others. Thomas Paine said that “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”
So our concern as libertarians is not merely for our own liberty, but also the liberty of others. An intrinsic aspect of our freedom is the ability to communicate, trade, and have relationships with others. Others not being free is as much a violation of our own rights as it is of theirs.
This is not an excuse for violent attack on other nations, but a call for what actually increases liberty throughout the world. Free trade and movement can do what an invasion cannot: win hearts and minds.
Free trade destroys poverty, and helps redistribute economic power away from governments. Few things are more dangerous for authoritarianism than a growing middle class. And if a government refuse to allow it, free movement enables anyone to seek freedom elsewhere.
Migration is almost always towards more freedom, and rarely towards authoritarian states. This not only grows the economy of destination nations, but it also grows their cultural diversity. This multiculturalism enables recipient nations to have a melding of cultures, and as long as we have a tolerant society (in the true liberal sense), other cultures have tended to thrive and meld into the free society of America.
The success of immigrants (legal and illegal) in America lasts generations. Immigrants and their children are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to start businesses and create inventions than their non-immigrant counterparts. The great truth in the debate around multiculturalism is not that we should be concerned about Americans adopting new cultures, but we should be concerned when Americans are not adopting the cultures of immigrants!
Cosmopolitanism is also often, and correctly, labeled as anti-nationalism, but it is much more than that. It is a replacement of a nationalist culture with a culture of universalism. A “loyalty to and concern for others without regard to national or other allegiances”, as Oxford Languages defines it.
The first line in the defense of others rights is to use persuasion and freedom of association to ensure that others are respected. Respect for individuals is a basic cornerstone to gaining legal and popular recognition of their rights. From sodomy laws to Jim Crow laws to slavery laws; it was respect for the victims of those laws that lead to their ending. And it will be respect for the individuals targeted by modern tyrannies that bring respect for their rights.
To remain silent is to give away our most valuable weapon against tyranny. The first step in increasing the power of the state is to dehumanize its targets. As libertarians, we must hold true to the cosmopolitan tradition of liberalism precisely because humanizing even our enemies protects their rights and, by extension, our own. From Locke to Bastiat and Paine to von Mises, true tolerance of others is a foundational principle of libertarianism.
This is more than just a moral stance, it is also a defense of our own rights. As Thomas Paine said: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
If we do not take a stand against “othering,” we will inevitably watch their rights slip away with our own soon to follow.
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A version of this article was previously published on the Classical Liberal Caucus blog.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.